Is security software a protection racket?

Is security software a protection racket?

Summary: Microsoft is offering its new Windows OneCare Live security service at an irresistible low price. So why isn't it free?

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TOPICS: Security
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Last week, Microsoft released pricing and licensing details for its forthcoming Windows OneCare Live service.

Here are the relevant facts from the announcement:

  • The subscription-based service - which offers virus protection, a two-way firewall, a backup utility, system optimization, and (eventually) antispyware capabilities - is scheduled to go live in the U.S. in June.
  • The annual subscription price of $49.95 will cover up to three PCs.
  • If you sign up for the beta version and convert to a paid OneCare subscription between April 1st and April 30th, the price for the first year of service drops to $19.95.

I've been beta-testing the OneCare service for several months now, and it deserves a big thumbs-up for its target market of home users who want a no-fuss security solution. I'm also impressed that the base service is offered for use on up to three PCs. Microsoft already follows that practice for its Office Student and Teacher Edition, which allows "qualified educational users" to install and activate the software on up to three PCs.

A few things bother me about this announcement, however.

For starters, why isn't there a free antivirus component? Microsoft lists virus protection as one of the three "security essentials" in the Windows XP Security Center. Everything else in the OneCare Live package has a free equivalent, so why not this piece?

And how am I supposed to make an informed purchase decision based on effectiveness? With OneCare Live, as with virtually all its competitors, the only comparisons are based on features, eye candy, and reputation.

There's a long list of antivirus partners at Microsoft's Web site. After this announcement, I doubt that many are feeling much like partners. Especially when the announcement says:

We encourage you to take a look at what our competitors are offering – we’re confident that no one else is delivering a value like this for an “all-in-one” service on up to 3 PCs, like Windows OneCare Live.

I can already see the beginnings of an "arms war" among security software companies, with ads and whisper campaigns based on fear.

Two factors strongly influence Microsoft to charge for OneCare Live. For one thing, it costs a lot of money to run a 24/7 security response center, and someone has to pay for it. Perhaps more importantly, lawyers no doubt were involved in analyzing the antitrust aspects of this rollout. If Microsoft gives away a robust, full-featured security product, do they risk being hauled into court and charged with anti-competitive behavior?

Regardless, I wish that a basic version of OneCare Live were available as a free product for anyone running a compatible version of Windows. In this case, at least, I think there's a strong case for accepting security features as something that should be included in the base operating system. Go ahead and charge more for an upgraded version with better backup tools (like the capability to back up essential files online, a feature that's curiously lacking from this release). But please don't charge for basic protection.

Topic: Security

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34 comments
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  • They can't give it away for free

    They would get sued for anti-trust faster then I can type this sentence.
    What I wish the big box shops would start to do is bundle AVG or another free-for-home use Antivirus, instead of the 90 trial of Symantec. Most of the home machines I have worked on (weather to clean up, tune up, or just give the once over) have had subscriptions that ended more then 6 months before.
    mdemuth
    • Why not?

      Microsoft is aggressive at defedning its right to "innovate" by adding functionality to the OS in some areas. Why not here? They already have announced plans to give away Windows Defender (antispyware) for free. Why not provide basic real-time antivirus protection as part of the base OS?
      Ed Bott
      • aggressive at defedning

        and winning in court are 2 different things. Look at Europe; MS can't even add a media player to the system.
        I'm actually surprised they got Defender out. But AV, with a million(billion?) dollar industry at stake? No, you?d have Vista Edition N Edition A version, or something?
        mdemuth
        • So, you're saying

          That MSFT isn't allowed to put out a secure operating system because it would threaten a multi-billion dollar security industry?

          Because, really, there's no difference if MSFT has a component to automatically run updates and fix problems or fields an operating system that doesn't need that support.

          Personally, I don't see it as any different than a service warranty. For three years you get free protection, included in the price of the OS, and then if you want to continue the protection it costs X through MSFT or Y through one of the others.

          I think that would be perfectly legitimate. Heaven forbid Symantec should ever have to compete on a value basis. It would depend on how MSFT implmented it. If the anti-virus was part of the OS, difficult to remove and required a lot of advanced skill on the users part, then, yeah, there would be antitrust issues. If MSFT said you can use our service or any of these other fine products, then it's not.
          Chad_z
          • Security goes way beyond the OS

            MS secures the OS through their monthly patch cycles. But increasingly security software's function has become one of protecting users from themselves. There is a gray area between these two ends of security, but don't think that it would stop an A/V company, or a state Attorney General who has received donations from an A/V company, from going after MS on anti-competitive "bundling" if MS were to give it away. There would be a very strong precedent from both U.S. and European courts. As for consumers locked into paying $30/year? Who cares about them!
            Rodney Davis
          • this is exactly where antitrust is aiming at

            If MS gave the AV away for free they would be sued for anticompetitive behaviour almost immediatly. it wouldnt matter how easy it was to remove. the veryb fact that they were supplying a free product from a position of market domination, undercutting a well established group of companies.that is exactly what the antitrust laws were created to prevent.
            waylander
          • I think it should be free!

            Microsoft makes a very insecure operating system and then
            charges for security. shouldn't this be part of the operating system?
            Other operating systems do not have all the security problems in
            Windows XP. Why not give it away to make Microsoft more equal to
            it's OS competitors?

            It sounds like just another way to charge the customer for what he
            has already paid for, a secure operating system.
            MacGeek2121
          • By that logic...

            ...they should never have built networking into Windows. Doing so resulted in "undercutting a well established group of companies" who had built businesses around adding networking capabilities to Windows. I agree that if MS were to give away AV BEYOND WHAT IS NECESSARY FOR SECURITY OF THE OS ITSELF, they would get sued. My point is that such a giveaway would be pro-consumer, though antitrust under the precedents established by US and European courts.
            Rodney Davis
          • insanse

            looks like the antitrust lawyers are crippling microsoft.

            isn't it time that the freE OS guys and gals rolled out a MS compatible os, so anyone who wanted a half-assed, insecure and inoperable out of the box OS COULD USE THAT INSTEAD?

            sorry about the caps lock. many years ago i would be in with the anti-M$ brigade, i even trained up with SUN for access to good technology, but this is now ridiculous. What is wrong with MS adding media, internet, antivirus etc.. to their core product? its like saying to a car manufaturer that they can't ship with engine or wheels. Oh no, god forbid you put a paint job or central locking on the car.

            Linux, Solaris, HP, AIX, BeOS, Ubuntu, Mandrake, 0S2 - these are all alternatives to MS, the antitrust should look more carefuly at _exclusion_ of other software, not inclusion of essentials.

            jm2c
            flowin
    • The reason...

      "What I wish the big box shops would start to do is bundle AVG or another free-for-home use Antivirus, instead of the 90 trial of Symantec."

      The reason they don't is that Symantec PAYS the OEMs for that bundling. What is the motive to bundle free AV software instead?

      Carl Rapson
      rapson
    • They got away with the firewall

      And noone sued. Besides they could make it modular, more like a framework. Stock you get MS, optionally you can use modules from any other vendor.

      They just want another cash cow.
      Suicida|
      • Legalities

        There were lots of things MS integrated into Windows, supplanting lots of competitors' products, before they got hauled into court for "integrating" a browser. Look at FancyFont and Lantastic as a couple of examples. But the argument that won regarding the browser was that it WASN'T and SHOULDN'T have been part of the OS. Arguably the firewall protects the OS. But what about a system that protects you from phishing attacks? Do you cross a line at that point from protecting the OS to a broader notion of security? Your statement that "Stock you get MS, optionally you can use modules from any other vendor" was MS's argument at the EU regarding Windows Media Player. MS lost that one.

        In the name of competition, the courts have made sure that the consumer will continue to PAY for security.
        Rodney Davis
      • Firewalls vs Anti-Virus...

        Which is more popular?

        Otherwise I agree that MS should charge. It's called competition.. If MS has such a great product.. People will pay the price for it just like they do with other "charged" av solutions.
        ju1ce
  • You CAN get good security for FREE.

    I've been able to use a couple of security products that are good and FREE! You may even be able to download them from ZDNet.

    Avast! Antivirus: Home version is free, plus it updates practicaly every day.

    Zone Alarm: A solid firewall, make you almost stealthy.

    You can find other free securityware from Suzi Turrner's "Geting Mad About Malware" blogs.

    (No, I don't work for ZDN. I'm just a regular reader here!)
    Mr. Roboto
    • "You CAN get good security for FREE"

      Download Linux...
      John Zern
      • So instead of

        loading 1 or 2 pieces of free, easily findable, easily installable software you would have switch OS's? Needing a complete wipe and install, all new software, and limiting our choices of hardware/software?
        No, I think I'll keep it simple.
        mdemuth
        • Bill Gates recommends...

          > loading 1 or 2 pieces of free, easily findable, easily installable
          > software you would have switch OS's? Needing a complete wipe
          > and install, all new software, and limiting our choices of
          > hardware/software?

          ...that you switch OS's (to VISTA, naturally). This needs a complete wipe and install, all new software, and limiting our choices of hardware/software. I.e. you'll only be able to see hi-res video on "compliant hardware", and you'll have to throw away your current PC and monitor.
          Knorthern Knight
  • Stroke of Genius, tho. Make a security flawed OS and charge to protect it.

    It would be like buying a car from Ford (as an example) and then paying them more for a separate steering wheel lock because their own door locks are so bad the car can be broken into by girl guides with toothpicks.

    What a beautiful monopoly.

    The Banjo
    BanjoPaterson
    • It's like a past Dilbert cartoon...

      During an office meeting, the pointy-haired boss tells his employees (software engineers) that a new company policy will reward each employee for bugs and fixes they find in their software before it's released.

      As Dilbert and Wally (the office slacker) walk away from the meeting, Wally happily proclaims he's going back to his cubicle and code himself a Ferrari.

      (or something along those lines... it's been a few years since reading the cartoon)

      ie, purposely write bug filled code and then profit from it by being paid to find his own mistakes (bugs).

      Much like MS... produce and sell security-challenged code and then hope to profit by charging to make it secure.

      Somehow for MS, it fits.
      MacCanuck
      • LOL (nt)

        ..
        BanjoPaterson